Saturday, May 15, 2010


It's been a long time since I saw an African film, and as I try to catch up with the late decade in order to compose a Top 25 for the Wonders in the Dark poll I thought I should check out the final movie by Sembene Ousmane, the Senegalese auteur generally hailed as the father of the African feature film. This valedictory effort got a lot of positive attention in the art house community when it reached America because Sembene was tackling the subject of female genital mutilation and taking the understandably progressive view that it's a bad thing. He was bound to be cheered for his message alone, but how was Moolaade as cinema?

Sembene's main character, Colle, is the middle wife of a middling villager. Like most women, she underwent the Purification as tradition dictates, but it didn't go well. The botched ritual operation by the Salimbana made pregnancies difficult for Colle, who lost two babies before a daughter was saved by caesarian section. That daughter, now a teenager, is a Bilakoro. Never having been cut, she's considered unfit to be a bride. Because Colle got away with sparing her daughter the ordeal, a group of four girls seek her protection when their cutting time comes. She grants them "Protection" by invoking the Moolaade tradition. Whoever crosses the sacred thread to seize the girls will be cursed. The great irony of the film is that Colle's traditionalist enemies are kept at bay by tradition, even while they try to stomp out other incursions of modernity.

They cut girls terribly young in Moolaade's African village, but not if Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly) can help it.

The village has an ambivalent relationship to the modern world. Their main daily link is the local merchant, Mercenaire, who seems to make most of his money from batteries and day-old bread from the big city. The batteries run radios and the radios play modern music and commentaries that challenge local traditions. The elders will blame radios for subverting their authority and confiscate them from their wives, building a mound destined to become a bonfire of vanities. Mercenaire himself has seen the wider world; he was a UN peacekeeper who was busted for exposing corruption among his superiors, or so he says. We learn later that he's ripping off the villagers, overcharging them for the bread and probably for other stuff. On the other hand, he clearly disapproves of how the elders (including the female Salimbana) try to break Colle's will, and he's the one who finally steps up to defend her when her husband publicly whips her (albeit goaded himself by his cousin) in an attempt to force her to say the word that will revoke the Moolaade. He pays a dire price for interfering. But while Mercenaire is scapegoated as a representative of subversive modernity, the village is really very dependent on the chief's son Ibrahima, who brings home the big bucks by working in France. Among the things he brings home on his latest visit (when Colle's daughter hopes he'll marry her) is a TV set. Ibrahima is quite westernized, switching back and forth from native to European dress and recognizing Mercenaire's literary references. You expect him to become the hero of the picture, but Mercenaire beats him to the punch, and his own conflict with his father sometimes looks like that of a spoiled brat with a petty tyrant bickering (literally) over TV privileges. It's not until a critical mass of village women take Colle's side after another botched Purification that Ibrahima takes a decisive stand that seems to assure a happy ending.

Moolaade is mainly about female empowerment and it has a bit of an agitprop quality to it. I have to admit that the genital-mutilation question is pretty one-sided one for most American observers, but I can't help feeling that making that the battleground between tradition and modernity kind of stacks the deck in favor of the latter. I'm not saying that I'd be receptive to the case against modernity (what would that be anyway? Powaqqatsi?), but I think a deeper film would give that case more of a fair hearing than Sembene did this time out. I'd also concede that there are times and places when Sembene's approach is the appropriate, even necessary one.

Watching the film in cinematic-tourist mode, I was dazzled by Moolaade's artistry. Its village setting (in Burkina Faso) at first seems so abstract to the western eye, what with its eccentric mosque and Gaudi-like giant anthill, that it looks like a Tim Burton set. In time it takes on a lived-in quality and its strangeness doesn't stick out as much, but Sembene still exploits the architecture for starkly powerful effect. The defining shots of the film may be those that juxtapose three rival monuments: the mosque, the anthill (said to house the spirit of a defeated king) and the growing pile (later pyre) of radios -- some of which the elders don't even bother turning off. Sembene and cinematographer Dominique Gentil also have a strong shared eye for color in landcape and costume; this film is always great to look at. The actors are constrained by their good guy/bad guy assignments. Fatoumata Coulibaly is appropriately stalwart as Colle, but Dominique Zeida nearly steals the film, in my eyes, as Mercenaire, the most complex character.

I suspect my mild reservations about Moolaade's agitprop qualities won't trouble most people who give it a try. It's a strong crowd-pleasing story that should have any viewer on its side from the start and a good indicator of what African cinema can do. If someone wants to try a film from the continent, I'd have no problem recommending this one.

The English-language trailer was uploaded to YouTube by k364:

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